PANORAMANIA; Or The Adventures Of John Banvard / An O'er True Tale.
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
August 11, 2012
One of the risks inherent in biographical art is the conflation of chronology and narrative. The events of an interesting figure's life can fall flat when not enough thought is given to how those can be structured in the service of a story. Breathing Time Machine's Panoramania falls into this trap in its musical presentation of the life of John Banvard, the once-famous but now-obscure 19th century American panorama painter.
Panoramas were massive paintings that provided immersive views of landscapes and became extremely popular in 19th century Europe and the United States (inciting the titular “panoramania”). Banvard was most famous for an extraordinarily long (approximately 800 meter) panorama he created of the Mississippi Valley, which he then toured around the States and Europe before settling into a museum in New York, in direct competition with P.T. Barnum. His most significant contribution was the invention of a mechanism for rotating the panorama between two spools, creating the illusion of passing through the landscape as if on a train or boat. Many consider it to be a key ancestor to motion pictures. At the end of his life, however, due to poor management Banvard was left largely penniless and his massive castle built on Long Island was lampooned as “Banvard's Folly”.
Breathing Time Machine's production sets this story to a rollicking folk musical soundtrack by PartyFolk, performed by a young and eager cast. Unfortunately exuberance and catchy music fail to compensate for a crudely-structured and far-too-long plot. A somewhat glaring omission, for example, was that they never explained what a panorama painting or Banvard's mechanism for display were, instead just assuming that you would know or figure it out. Rather than focusing on a cohesive story, more effort seems to have gone into crude, anachronistic gag humor (such as an extended pissing contest song “Mine is Longer”) and kooky characters, which are for the most part poorly executed, with the notable exception of Brandon Zelman who plays a few of Banvard's assistants to solid comic effect. As is too often the case, Panoramania lacked a dramaturgical eye for creating a coherent narrative experience, losing sight of the forest for its trees.